By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
It's a disturbing narrative, the 19-page indictment of football star Michael Vick and three of his friends. Perhaps the details shocked people unfamiliar with the secretive world of illegal dogfighting: the breeding and training of pit bulls for savage, high-stakes combat and the brutal executions of dogs that fail to measure up.
Dogs shot, hanged, drowned, beaten, electrocuted. An awful story.
Yet to animal-welfare workers, the ugly particulars were far from surprising. They said the dogfighting subculture is deeply entrenched in the United States. And in that shadowy realm, they said, the sort of business allegedly conducted on property owned by Vick in rural Surry County, Va., has been going on for generations, especially in the rural South.
"For us, the Vick case has had tremendous value," said Jeff Dorson, a Louisiana Humane Society official. "We've been trying to tell the public how typical this is, how widespread it is, the horrors the animals go through. . . . It's opened the curtain so everyone can see what's going on."
Vick, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and a former Virginia Tech all-American, is scheduled to plead guilty Monday to dogfighting-related offenses, with federal guidelines calling for a prison term in the range of 12 to 18 months, according to his attorneys and sources familiar with the case. His co-defendants have pleaded guilty.
The blood sport goes on.
"Dog men," they call themselves, the untold numbers of breeders and fighters. With their pastime illegal everywhere in the country, they stay in touch through secret networks and underground magazines. They say they love to compete. They tell themselves the pit bulls love it, too.
"The reason for the Michael Vick thing . . . is because athletes have a keen insight into courage and determination, which is what pit bulls possess," said Bill Stewart, a breeder in Romance, Ark., who publishes the Pit Bull Reporter. "Athletes understand better than anyone what dogfighting is about. It's about two highly conditioned athletes going at each other with everything they have to try to win. It's the purest form of combat on earth."
To dog men, all dogs are curs except the American pit bull terrier, descended from canines used in English blood sports centuries ago.
Animal-protection workers and others who have infiltrated the underworld of pit bull fighting say dog men train their animals for weeks before bouts, perverting the dietary and fitness sciences to build ferocious canine maulers.
They perform unlicensed veterinary surgery on the grievously wounded and stud their battle-scarred champs, often for fees in the hundreds of dollars. A pit bull in its prime with a string of victories can fetch $10,000 or more. To save on upkeep and preserve the breed, weaklings are destroyed, either painlessly or with a vengeance.
The illegal bouts, in carpeted 16-by-16-foot pits surrounded by four-foot walls, are staged in hidden venues, usually with no more than a few dozen spectators allowed. Elaborate, decades-old rules are followed. Bets are posted in cash, sometimes five figures. Afterward, dog men tend to their pit bulls' injuries, provided the animals fought gamely. They won't tolerate dogs that quit.
Young pit bulls that survive training become "match dogs," weighing 35 to 55 pounds and fighting in weight classes. With a pile of cash riding on the outcome, a regulation match is officiated by a referee. A typical bout lasts 45 minutes to an hour, usually ending when one of the bloodied combatants is too torn and gouged to go on.
Dog men have too much invested in their animals to let them fight to the death, so fatalities in the pit are rare. But grave, disfiguring wounds are the norm.
"At the top level, there are probably several thousand guys," said John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "When you include the guys who are part of organized dogfighting but don't have quite as sophisticated an operation as we saw in Surry County, we're talking about upwards of 40,000."
The July 17 indictment accused Vick and the others of running Bad Newz Kennels, a boot camp for fighting dogs on 15 acres near Vick's home town of Newport News. Starting in 2001, officials said, the men entered pit bulls in more than two dozen fights in several states, with bets of up to $13,000 per side. Officials said they seized 66 dogs, pit bull carcasses and training gear at the compound.
Authorities say the pit bull fighting subculture encompasses not only dog men with their training kennels and scheduled matches; it also includes less organized dogfighting that frequently takes place in poor urban neighborhoods, including in the District.
Although in both types of fighting the dogs maul each other in a frenzy of blood and saliva, inner-city fights usually are spontaneous. One gang member strutting with his nasty pit bull sees another, egos swell, and soon they're in a vacant building, the dogs ripping into each other while still on leash chains. "Street fighting," these impromptu bouts are called.
Unlike a dog man's pit bulls, most street maulers aren't carefully bred from fighting stock. They aren't put through weeks of pre-fight cardiovascular training on treadmills and in swimming pools. They're not steroid-enhanced. Their jaw muscles aren't pumped from a regimen of "bite-and-shake" exercises. Their teeth haven't been sharpened with electric grinders while they're sedated.
Pit bull fighting emerged as a popular betting pastime in the mid-1800s. As laws against it were enacted, it moved underground. By the mid-20th century, it was mostly a rural pursuit.
About 15 years ago, after it became fashionable in the urban thug life to be seen with a menacing pit bull, spur-of-the-moment street fights became common.
In this realm, to train them, owners often whip their pit bulls, burn them with cigarettes, feed them gunpowder and jalape?o peppers until they turn unremittingly vicious. Authorities said a dog man's pit bulls normally are safe for people to handle, while a street dog usually will attack anything that moves, except the "alpha male" who abused it.
A dog man's pit bulls are taught to be human-friendly because, under fight rules dating to the 1950s, each side handles and washes the other's dog before a match, in case the opposition has coated its animal with a poison or sedative.
In time, street-fighting pit bulls -- scarred and missing ears, racked by infection, their teeth broken and legs mangled -- will cease to look menacing.
"We get them left in abandoned buildings, thrown in Dumpsters, severely injured," said Chris Schindler, a Humane Society officer in the District. "We had an incident where somebody threw a trash bag out of a car, and it was one dog that was alive and one that was dead -- all fought up, really bad injuries. Just threw them out the window."
In a field near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station in Northeast Washington, Schindler said, "there are some old train tracks, and for about a year straight, we were constantly finding dogs tied to the tracks out there and left to die."
Researchers say organized pit bull fighting is less prevalent in the Washington region than in states farther south, although a dog man in Richmond was sentenced to four yeas in February. The FBI keeps no records on dogfighting arrests nationwide. The Humane Society has counted about 150 in the past two years, including eight in Virginia, two in Maryland and one in the District.
Because urban pit bull fights usually are spontaneous, police said, making arrests is difficult unless owners are caught in the act. Based on the dozens of battered and scarred pit bulls abandoned or seized in the Washington area every year, however, animal-protection advocates say street fighting is common.
Dog men, with their kennels of pit bulls and equipment, are easier to prosecute because authorities find more evidence, as in the Vick case. Since starting an anti-dogfighting task force in 2003, the South Carolina attorney general's office has prosecuted at least 20 cases, with more awaiting trials, said Jennifer Evans, the unit's chief prosecutor.
The granddaddy of all dogfighting cases, in terms of punishment, was prosecuted in South Carolina three years ago. There, as in other states, the maximum prison term for one count is five years. A breeder named David Ray Tant, then 57, pleaded guilty to 41 counts -- and was sentenced to 30 years.
"There's never been a sentence like it anywhere in the country, as far as I know," Evans said last week.
Tant also had laid a half-dozen booby traps around his property -- pipes with tripwires, rigged to fire birdshot -- and a land surveyor was severely injured after stepping on one. Tant got 10 years for assault, on top of the 30.
In another major case, 70-year-old Floyd Boudreaux, dubbed "the don of dogfighting" by the Humane Society, is awaiting trial in Louisiana, charged with 64 counts. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney did not return messages seeking comment. Known as "Boudreaux dogs," the pit bulls bred in his kennel are among the strongest, most coveted animals in the field of canine combat, police said.
Based on details in the indictment, the Bad Newz operation was typical of many others in the "professional" realm, said Eric Sakach, a California-based official of the Humane Society of the United States.
Generally, the process of turning a well-bred pit bull pup into a fighter begins when the dog is 16 months old, said Sakach, who witnessed a dozen organized dogfights as an undercover investigator in the 1980s and 1990s. He now trains enforcement agencies on how to root out dog men.
The "prospect" is pitted in bouts against an over-the-hill fighter in the kennel, sometimes with filed-down teeth, a dog unable to do much damage.
"These are short combats, about 10 to 15 minutes," said Sakach, "during which the prospect is going to get lots and lots of lavish praise. The point is, you want the dog to start associating praise with what its master wants it to do, which is fight."
After a few months, this "schooling" process turns deadly serious, as the dog begins preparing for its "game test," a full-fledged bout with a kennel-mate in its prime, to measure how much punishment the young pit bull can take. The prospect trains for six to eight weeks, hour upon hour -- running, swimming, jumping, chomping -- until test day arrives.
"The idea here is, you want your prospect to get hurt," Sakach said. "You don't want it hurt so bad that it's going to die. But you want it hurt badly enough so that it really understands pain and exhaustion. Because you want to know if your dog's going to quit."
For a prospect that fails, life is short. "If they're not going to make money for you," Sakach said, "then you don't want them around."
At Bad Newz, the indictment says, Purnell Peace, 35, shot two dogs "that did not perform well" in schooling. Vick, Peace and Quanis Phillips, 28, allegedly executed eight others by "hanging, drowning, and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground."
Sakach said such brutality is common. "Some guys just decide they're going to exact some retribution for what they apparently feel is a betrayal."
Pit bulls that survive schooling become full-time canine prizefighters. But not all have long careers.
In March 2003, according to the indictment, the men of Bad Newz Kennels traveled to a venue near Blackstone, Va., with two pit bulls that they entered in separate bouts. The bets: $13,000 per side on one match, $10,000 on the other. After both dogs lost, "Vick retrieved a book bag from a vehicle containing approximately $23,000 in cash" and gave it to the winning dog man.
The female dog defeated in the $13,000 match not only cost its owners a bundle of money but apparently suffered horrible injuries. So it was disposed of, the indictment says.
"Peace, after consulting with Vick about the losing female pit bull's condition, executed the losing dog by wetting the dog down with water and electrocuting the animal."